Constitution Sunday: Major Martin Kingsley on the Excessive Powers of Congress

Massachusetts Ratifying Convention

January 21, 1788

A representative democracy requires that elected officials are servants to the people. There must be accountability, and with two-year terms for members of the House of Representatives, four-year terms for Presidents, and six-year terms for Senators, the Constitution has provided voters with the option to rotate their servants every two years. For Major Martin Kingsley, at the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention, the Constitution was inferior to the Articles of Confederation because there was insufficient checks on public servants.

In fact, Kingsley said that the checks were so insufficient that they were not public servants but masters of the people. The Articles of Confederation had provided for three checks on the delegates in Congress: “the annual election of them, their rotation, and the power to recall any, or all of them.” The Constitution not only reduced the number of checks but also expanded the power of the federal government, or “our federal rulers” as Kingsley labeled them. The Constitution gave them the “power to lay and collect all taxes, duties, imposts and excises; raise armies, fit out navies, to establish themselves in a federal town of ten miles square, equal to four middling townships, erect forts, magazines, arsenals &c.” With such power, designing men could perpetuate their time in office, take more power for themselves, and leave the people with nothing to defend themselves with.

Ancient history was replete with these scenarios playing out, and the Romans provided a prime example. The Romans, “after a war, thought themselves safe in a government of ten men, called the Decemviri: these ten men were invested with all powers, and were chosen for three years,” said Kingsley. He continued, “By their arts and designs they secured their second election; but finding, from the manner in which they had exercised their power, they were not able to secure their third election, they declared themselves masters of Rome, impoverished the city, and deprived the people of their rights.”

The Constitution was deficient where it allowed such a sequence of events to even be plausible, according to Kingsley, and he also noted that one need not go back as far as ancient history: England’s history alone illustrated the point. And so long as the draft Constitution imbued Congress with unchecked, excessive power, it should not be ratified. Regardless of the aptness of the analogies, Kingsley’s fears of the draft Constitution have not been realized, but unlike Rome and England, America’s history is quite brief and transgressions certainly may still come.

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